Thinkin' Things 1
Published by: Edmark
Age Range: 4-8
Glass Wall Suggested Age Range: 4-8 (with an adult available, particularly for 4-6 year olds)
Platform Information: Mac or PC
Reviewer: Marlene Kliman
Image © Edmark. Used with permission.
Is the Game Mathematical?
Thinkin' Things 1 is a collection of six activities that involve logical reasoning, patterns, and geometry. While most of these activities offer the potential for mathematical learning and problem-solving, children may not always experience that potential unless an adult is available to offer guidance. Some activities are so structured that they accommodate only a narrow range of approaches and solutions; others are so open-ended that children may not attend to the math.
An example on the structured side is the activity Feathered Friends, which focuses on logical reasoning and pattern-finding. In this activity, children are presented with a pattern consisting of a row of several identical birds with varied hats, shoes, and other clothing items. For instance, one bird might have a striped shirt, the next a dotted shirt, the next a striped shirt, the next a dotted shirt, and so on. Each row contains one "blank" bird, either at the beginning, end, or middle of the row. Children must determine what clothing this bird needs in order to continue the pattern. On occasion, there is more than one way to do this. Unfortunately, the software accepts only a particular answer, so children may come up with a reasonable solution but receive feedback that it is incorrect. An adult can help head off frustration by explaining beforehand that although the computer only accepts just one solution, sometimes there may be more than one.
Another reason for adult supervision is that it's possible for children to "succeed" at this activity without actually having a grasp of the underlying math. As children make continued errors, the range of possible answers they can select is narrowed. With enough errors, children are left with only the correct choice to click on. Although this ensures that all children can ultimately click on the correct answer, it also means that they may end up doing so with no learning or understanding. To help promote children's learning, an adult can encourage a child to look carefully at the row of birds and think about how their clothing varies: Do all the birds have the same hat? the same shoes? How do the shoes vary as you go across the row?
An example of an open-ended activity is Flying Spheres, in which children can create a visual display of colorful balls moving on the screen with musical accompaniment. Children choose the number and color of the balls, the color of the background on which they move, the pattern in which they move (e.g., up and down, sideways, outward from the center of the screen), and the music. Although children can readily create unusual and attractive animations, these can quickly become very complex. With a few clicks, children can set up a display that contains so many balls bouncing all over the screen that it can be hard to see the relationship between those initial clicks and the resulting animation. Rather than serving as a way for children to plan and then successfully create animations, Flying Spheres may at times give children the feeling that they have little control over the animations they set up. Likewise, the activity comes with a set of beautiful on-screen animations in which balls glide across the screen in time to music. These are supposed to serve as models for what children could create on their own, but it would be hard for most children to figure out how to go about creating these.
To help children pose and accomplish realistic tasks, an adult should be present at least initially, perhaps encouraging children to do some (but certainly not all) of their free exploration systematically to get a clear sense of each possibility. For instance, children might try animating just one ball at a time to get a sense of each possible kind of ball movement.
Is the Game Equitable?
Thinkin' Things 1 is successful in some of its efforts to meet the needs of a range of learners: The software provides a range of activity types (Flying Spheres and the similar activity, Flying Shapes are completely open-ended, in the other four activities children are presented with tasks to accomplish). In the four structured activities, there are a variety of levels of challenge. Children are automatically promoted to more difficult problems when they solve easier ones successfully, but they (or their parents) can override this at any time by adjusting a challenge lever. The imaginary creatures that populate the activities are for the most part free of gender and ethnicity (there are a few creatures that children may be more likely to assume are male).
Although Thinkin' Things 1 purports to address a variety of learning styles by offering experiences with visual, auditory, and logical thinking, it is logical thinking that stands out most clearly. The musical/auditorily oriented child, or the child seeking to develop this aspect of thinking, may be disappointed.
For instance, in one of the activities, Loony Tunes, a character called Tuney plays a series of notes on an on-screen xylophone. The child's task is to replicate the series of notes by clicking on the appropriate xylophone bars. A child could theoretically accomplish this by remembering the sound of the notes played and "translating" this back onto the xylophone. In order to do this, most children would need some familiarity with a xylophone and experience using it as a tool for making music. In the absence of this background, since each bar of the xylophone is a different bright color, children are likely to remember the sequence of xylophone bar colors that Tuney played rather than the sounds (e.g., first Tuney played the blue bar, then the red, then the yellow, then the blue again). For two very musical children we observed, the activity was an exercise in memorizing a series of colors; the music was incidental, if not ignored totally.
Is it a Good Game?
Thinkin' Things 1 is a collection of activities, rather than a game with an ongoing story line or goal. Children are free to choose which activities they want to work on; they may enjoy some but not others. There is enough variety in context and characters that most children are likely to be engaged by at least one of the activities.
An important quality of "good" games is whether they can offer enrichment and engagement over time. The two open-ended activities, Flying Spheres and Flying Shapes, have the potential to provide variety and continued challenge, since children can design and create increasingly complex animations as their experience grows. The other activities are more limited. Once you reach the highest level of challenge (and some 6-8 year olds may do so quickly), there's not much else you can do. Nonetheless, two of these activities, Feathered Friends and another logical reasoning activity, The Fribble Shop, could provide fertile ground for engaging children in sorting, comparing and contrasting, and sequencing: important components of primary-level mathematics. Children working alone may not always fully engage in this content; with adults present to encourage children's thinking, these activities can offer enjoyable and worthwhile mathematical experiences.
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